Lambic: A Beer Worth the Wait

Bring a little bit of Belgium beer to your home brewery with lambic, whose production and final products stand out from any other ale.

| Summer 2020

Photo by Getty Images/Fabian Krueger 

Belgium is home to an incredible diversity of beers. Among the most iconic is lambic, a sour wheat ale brewed in the Zenne Valley region near Brussels. Unlike other modern beers — outside of a few newer sour craft beers — lambic wort is intentionally inoculated with wild airborne microorganisms. The characters (aromas or flavors) these wild “bugs” leave behind are part of the signature flavor of this unique beer.

The Wild Taste of Lambic

Lambic is usually pale, but fruited versions may display the color of the fruit. Modern bottled versions are often highly carbonated. The aroma of a lambic typically exhibits a lactic sourness, often with a fruity ale note. Some examples additionally show some “funk.” Common “funky” characters are described as “barnyard” and “horse blanket.” Less commonly, there may be a “baby diaper” note. These characters — as they’re not generally considered pleasant — should be restrained. However, in some examples, they’re fairly strong. In others, they’re not detectable under the sourness of the lactic acid. The funky characteristics come from wild microorganisms that grow early in the fermentation, as well as a particular wild yeast (Brettanomyces) that grows slowly late in the fermentation. The sour character comes from strains of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus bacteria.

The flavor of lambic is sour, occasionally with some “bready” notes from the wheat. In fruited examples, the fruit character can range from almost imperceptible to moderately strong. Traditional lambics are generally dry to very dry, but some nontraditional versions imported to the U.S. are pasteurized and back-sweetened. In Belgium, some lambic drinkers add sugar to their drinks to cut through the sour flavor.

There’s no hop aroma or bitterness in a lambic. Hops are an ingredient of lambic, but they’re aged before use and don’t contribute any significant level of bitterness or aroma. They may contribute a small degree of astringency. Overall, sourness, dryness, and a little astringency give lambic a puckering mouthfeel.

All the main characters in a lambic — especially sourness, dryness, and the level of funk — can vary substantially among examples. Given that a wild fermentation occurs alongside the “normal” fermentation, and that the beer is then aged in oak barrels (which themselves are home to wild bacteria and yeasts), a wide variety of outcomes isn’t that surprising. Lambic brewers have their ways of managing fermentations, and lambics are frequently blended for some degree of consistency, but this makes the category full of truly wild beers.



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